Elections

1.4 million Pennsylvanians asked to vote by mail. Here’s what that means for Election Week 2022 counting.

by Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

Data from the Pennsylvania Department of State show the vast majority of the requests for absentee and mail ballots — roughly 70% — came from registered Democrats.
Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — More than 1.4 million people in Pennsylvania requested to vote by mail for the Nov. 8 election, but county officials don’t expect it to take several days to complete the count like in 2020 when the slow pace was used to cast unfounded doubt on the integrity of the results.

Data from the Pennsylvania Department of State show the vast majority of the requests for absentee and mail ballots — roughly 70% — came from registered Democrats.

Since 2020, any registered voter has been allowed to cast a ballot by mail without an excuse, and the pandemic drove millions of people to do so that year. The total number of requests made by this year’s Nov. 1 deadline significantly declined compared to 2020.

The biggest share of absentee and mail ballot requests came from Allegheny County and Philadelphia — nearly a quarter of the total. Their close neighbors, including Bucks, Montgomery, and Northampton Counties, followed.

County representatives from Allegheny, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties told Spotlight PA they expect poll workers to finish counting ballots Wednesday, the day after the election. A representative from Bucks County estimated that it would take until Wednesday or Thursday to finish counting ballots. The Inquirer similarly reported that most counties should be done by early Wednesday.

Mail ballots were targeted by top national and state Republican officials following the 2020 election cycle, when false claims of voter fraud denigrated trust in their use.

One prominent disinformation narrative, propagated by former President Donald Trump, claims that changes in results in the days after the election indicate nefarious activity. In reality, Pennsylvania law restricts poll workers from counting absentee and mail ballots until 7 a.m. Election Day, which makes the duration of the count depend on the number of mail ballots. Simply put: More ballots require more time.

County election directors have repeatedly asked lawmakers to allow poll workers to count these ballots prior to Election Day in order to deliver results faster. However, state House Republicans have said they are unwilling to pass legislation that would allow for pre-canvassing without other concessions such as expanded voter ID requirements.

As part of this year’s budget, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 88 and agreed to make $45 million in grants available to counties to run their elections. But in exchange for accepting the money — which nearly all 67 counties did — poll workers must continuously count absentee and mail ballots until the job is done.

Officials from most counties that spoke with Spotlight PA said poll workers counted ballots through the night in previous elections, while others said the workers were allowed occasional breaks.

Dori Sawyer, the election director in Montgomery County, said her county can process about 6,000 ballots an hour. Overall, the county received about 130,000 absentee and mail ballot requests for the Nov. 8 election, and she expects the process to take around 24 hours.

“What I do wish Act 88 had done for us is given us pre-canvassing time. Starting from 7 a.m., needing to work 24 hours, and working until we get it done does lead to an extremely long work day,” said Sawyer. “Once we hit 24 hours straight, that’s when we start to get tired. That’s kind of when fatigue starts to set in. We’re human and require periods of rest.”

Most of the requests for absentee and mail ballots came from voters who live in urban and suburban regions across the state, namely Allegheny County and Philadelphia, their neighboring counties, and counties encompassing smaller cities such as Erie and Scranton.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University, said this could be because of the difficulties that come with voting in a densely populated area. Voters may be forced to wait in line for a long time or may find accessing their polling place difficult due to a lack of parking spaces or public transportation.

“If you are in rural Pennsylvania and you vote at your local fire hall or library, chances are you walk in and you walk out and you’re done voting in 5 minutes,” said Sweet-Cushman. “In more urban areas, the density of the number of voters per polling location is much higher.”

Maps show Pennsylvanians who requested ballots tend to live in areas with easy internet access, said Lara Putnam of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. Putnam said that voters who have ready access to information about voting procedures — which is typically available online — tend to use mail ballots at a higher rate. Voters with higher wealth and education levels also tend to use mail ballots at higher rates, regardless of party affiliation.

Prior to 2020, Pennsylvania allowed people to vote absentee if they had a valid excuse such as a disability. Older voters from both major parties often voted this way, a trend that was also true for mail ballots in 2020.

But since some Republican lawmakers have falsely alleged fraudulent voting occurred in 2020 and mail ballots have been lumped with such claims, those numbers have significantly shifted.

“Mail-in ballots are relatively new in Pennsylvania, but in states where they’ve had it for a long time and it’s been used by a significant percentage of the electorate — it was frequently more conservative voters who used this option because they tended to be older,” said Sweet-Cushman. “But of course, like virtually everything surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it all wound up politicized.”

Top Republican officials, both within the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Congress, pushed false narratives of widespread election fraud during the 2020 election. GOP gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, led the charge to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania and to later “audit” the election results. If elected, he has vowed to do away with no-excuse mail voting.

As recently as a week prior to Election Day, Mastriano sent a fundraising email trying to erode trust in the results, criticizing expected “delays” in the vote-counting process.

Despite these claims, the Pennsylvania Republican Party told voters in an August mailer that mail voting “is safe, secure, and endorsed” by the organization. A page on its website, which was no longer live as of Nov. 1, promoted mail ballots and explained why voting that way was “safe.”

However, false narratives about fraudulent mail ballots might have already affected GOP voters’ willingness to use them. Voters registered as Republicans accounted for just 21% of the total mail ballot requests this election cycle. In 2020, that number was nearly 30%.

During the primary, just 4% of Mastriano voters cast their vote by mail, whereas over 40% of voters who backed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro did.

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